Digital Archaeological Heritage: an introduction

Keith May

Heritage Information Strategy Advisor, Historic England.

Cite this as: May, K. 2017 Digital Archaeological Heritage: an introduction, Internet Archaeology 43.

A call to action for Europe's archaeology was set out in the Amersfoort Agenda (Schut et al. 2015). It identifies digital technologies and the expanding phenomenon of online and social media as fundamental aspects of the future of archaeological endeavour through its three key agenda items:

The 17th EAC Symposium (Europae Archaeologiae Consilium) in Brighton was convened under a concept note that recognised that 'Digital technologies are developing at an unprecedented speed. As they do, they are opening up many new possibilities for the conduct and presentation of archaeological research and investigation. The digital realm is one which knows few borders and so the sharing of understanding about these new methods, techniques and possibilities across Europe is extremely valuable'.

The Brighton Symposium was held over one-and-a-half days (17-18 March 2016) and consisted of three presentation sessions, followed by discussions that included questions and comments from the floor. The presentations were aimed at one of the three broad themes of the symposium although, in actuality, a number of the presenters raised topics that spanned more than one theme. The three general themes were:

Towards a Research Agenda for Digital Archaeology

The articles in this issue are seen to add to a significant and growing corpus of work by others in the field of digital archaeological heritage. This background, along with the Amersfoort agenda's reference to 'the future of archaeological endeavour', provides a suitable landscape for some horizon scanning, and to give a brief examination, or 'Observatory', of possible trajectories or implications of some key emerging digital technologies, particularly where further research is likely to be of strategic benefit to the heritage sector. In any such attempt at 'reading the archaeological runes', and especially one involving possible innovations in Information Technology, the timescale cannot be quite the same as might be more familiar to archaeologists, for whom a century is considered such a brief passage of time. Undoubtedly this horizon scan and its observations will need to be supplemented by further updates or references to other forward-looking agendas over the course of the coming years. It will be interesting to what degree, and how quickly, the current pace of change in IT can overtake it. Such a scan can currently identify seven major challenges.

The Magnificent Seven: Grand Challenges for Digital Archaeological Heritage

1. Re-engineering heritage processes to include digital technologies where most appropriate (but not just re-inventing the wheels)

A challenge resulting from the Amersfoort agenda is to re-design, or re-engineer, fieldwork, analysis, synthesis and publication along with related processes (Larsson et al.) as necessary to best enable appropriate access to digital historic environment information. Where possible this would be an opportunity to research and design direct digital data capture in the field using appropriate recording methods (e.g. laser scanning, Structure from Motion, 3D modelling, remote sensing, UAVs and AUVs unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles) (Meylemans et al. ; Musteaţă et al.). There is an associated risk that re-engineering could be taken forward inappropriately for the discipline, but equally a risk that if others outside the sector (e.g. predictive modelling, big data analysts) take on this challenge, then more 'mainstream' heritage research could at best be seen as outdated and irrelevant to the wider world, or more worryingly the direction of heritage research could become misdirected by others. Strategies and actions to help direct the most appropriate uses of digital technologies would include:

2. Defining the best digital end-products for correctly identified audiences (The Heritage Research Cycle – bridging or 'minding the gap')

There is an opportunity and need to better define the digital end products of the process of investigating the historic environment. This means that information should be generated and held in ways that best enable use for all the expected means of academic publication or more general dissemination, together with the development and support of an infrastructure to enable access to the information (e.g. Aloia et al.). This also requires a clear understanding of different audiences that will be researching, re-assessing, or simply enjoying the information (Corns et al.; Unger and Kvetina). Without this better definition there is the risk that historic environment information will remain fragmented, disparate, and fail to be current and relevant, both within the sector and, possibly equally significantly, for related sectors.

Digital records also provide a greater opportunity for front-loading the archives, so that new investigations consider the implications and requirements of creating artefacts of the future or 'technofossils' (Zalasiewicz et al. 2014) of the future when depositing new digital archive materials. Key strategic activities which would help promote the best digital end products would be:

3. Endorsing best practice and standards in digital methods

Considerable work has been done on providing online access to digital collections. Much of this information is at index level to sign-post where resources exist. There is a lot of existing material from the pre-digital era and issues arise about what could or should be digitised. Given the scale of the resource, though, it is difficult to assess which archives researchers might eventually want in digital formats, and how to future-proof such formats (Hollander; Aloia et al.). It is seen as a priority to define the particular audience requirements for different specialist researchers seeking digital archive information (e.g. archaeological, architectural, academic or professional, etc.). While considerable progress has been made in the digital archiving of single types of resource (e.g. image libraries), it has proved less straightforward to develop an integrated digital archiving strategy for more composite archives of projects involving various media and formats, such as archaeological excavations. A key strategy for digital archiving of more complex project datasets, and particularly where these require digital dissemination, is to deposit with a recognised digital archive. To help promote best practice and development of appropriate standards for digital methods some key approaches are recommended:

4. Capacity building and infrastructure for heritage use of digital technologies

A mechanism will be needed to update strategy where the adoption of new technologies produces a previously unknown skills shortage in the wider heritage sector. The discussions in Brighton suggested that 'crowd-sourcing' skills might be one approach to supporting skills in the heritage sector, which does not generally find it easy to maintain the 'cutting edge' of new technologies.

One of the intended aims of the Brighton symposium was to hold a short parallel student event to gauge adoption of new technologies by up and coming researchers. The difficulty in getting students to such an event ultimately highlighted a gap between the heritage management sector and the academic research sector. To bridge this it might be useful to:

A recent Historic England horizon-scanning report noted the need for greater development of GIS-related skills and data analysis (see McKeague et al.; Kuna et al.; Oniszczuk and Makowska; Stibrányi) which "require high degrees of expertise in two areas: knowledge and understanding of datasets and their properties, and expertise in statistics and in using GIS and related 'spatial' technologies (such as 3D modelling and rendering)" (Thomas 2015). Some other key priorities might be:

5. Heritage data analytics (The real potential of Big Data for heritage)

With ever-growing use of new digital investigation methods there are associated issues of how to process, manage, communicate and publish the often increasingly large digital resources that much research is now based on. Approaches that are used in the university research environment to develop high-performance parallel computing resources and increase such uses over the Internet do enable researchers to carry out work away from the more mundane limitations of the WWW. The development of such networks and infrastructure is something that the ARIADNE project in particular has begun to address (Hollander; Aloia et al.). The negotiated use of such 'High Performance Computing' for relevant heritage computing needs (e.g. new scientific dating and data-processing techniques; direct research on Heritage Data Analytics and data mining; or through specific research projects, may need further investigation, particularly with regard to some of the issues relating to the management and dissemination of results from so-called Big Data technologies. Some key priorities could be:

Much of the focus of Big Data analysis is on modelling current social and economic data to find trends and to make predictive models, rather than looking at the potential use of longer term historic data. Although much archaeological data can be, and will continue to be, more interpretative than much commercial Big Data, there may still be considerable potential – and indeed a negative risk management requirement – to establish what archaeological data is not suitable for data mining metrics, along with identifying where certain types of historic environment datasets would be useful for informing other multidisciplinary analysis. Some other key priorities might be:

6. Interoperability and semantics of heritage datasets

Much research is currently taking place in exploring ways to develop greater semantic interoperability between existing, or newly developed datasets. This is based on the idea of a further stage in the Internet's development known as the Semantic Web, which has been most publicly propagated by the inventor of the web browser, Tim Berners-Lee (Berners-Lee 2001) While at present the degree to which the vision of a semantic web is realisable remains debateable (the position seems similar to that in the early 1990s before the WWW became global), there are already major businesses in the IT domain (Oracle, IBM, BBC) who are benefiting from utilising the sorts of technologies that are being developed to create the semantic web. In the academic and research domains – where free information exchange and interoperability are more readily adopted principles – the emergence of semantically enabled data and tools such as Natural Language Processing (NLP) are growing fast (Aloia et al.). With this in mind it will be important for heritage organisations to make sure that existing data are kept up to date with such developments, and that new data are recorded and stored in ways that best enable this form of interoperability, so that the information remains useable by, and relevant to, others into posterity. Research as a result of this, while including new aspects of information management, may go further and include opening data up (see Challenge 7) for new areas of cross-domain research by the ability to search and data-mine semantically-related information resources that have not been previously interoperable (e.g. much greater potential to cite the information held in, or related by, online archaeological reports produced by many disparate projects and organisations). Opportunities for promoting research can be seen in the following areas:

7. Open access to data and publications supporting data sharing and re-use

A key agenda item from Amersfoort was aimed at providing and encouraging 'the greatest possible access to digital archaeological resources for various user groups. Archaeology should embrace the trend towards open access' (Schut et al. 2015, 22). But how best to put these words into practice? Some useful ideas are given in Amersfoort:

These new digital opportunities might require a reconsideration of our working ethics, including the question of what we do and do not wish to share. The development of shared digital databases offers benefits not only to the professional world; it also provides potential benefits for society. We will need to exploit digital databases to their full potential and explore the possible uses for the greater public. The discipline could also put more effort into researching existing data and facilitating syntheses. (Schut et al. 2015, 22)

This emphasises the need for some serious reconsideration or 're-engineering' of archaeological processes that were established in a different era, when many of the tools we now have for data recording, analysis, research synthesis and publication, were simply not available (and in some cases barely conceivable) to previous generations of archaeological excavators, scientists or researchers. Archaeologists have never been reluctant to adopt and adapt new and innovative software and IT. The broader directives towards Open Data, and Open Access publishing (EU Commission 2016) and Open Science, along with the emergence of widely used Open Source software (Bibby and Ducke), are providing a new impetus to data sharing and more open research opportunities. The Amersfoort publication also noted in particular that:

it is important to realise that data is not the same as knowledge. Easy access to more standardised, interlinked data does not necessarily lead to new and different stories about the past. It is therefore important not to lose sight of the focus on interpretation and knowledge gains. (Schut et al. 2015, 21)

Key areas of research for encouraging and supporting better sharing and re-use of data include:


I would like to thank all the participants and presenters for their contributions to this issue, not forgetting those who participated in the symposium discussions during and around the EAC conference. Particular thanks go to those who have worked so hard to produce their contributions, and have showed considerable patience, understanding and fortitude when faced with the encroaching deadlines. I would especially like to thank Barney Sloane and Hugh Corley for all their hard work in making the actual EAC conference and symposium event in Brighton such a success, and fun, for all involved. They were greatly assisted in this by Petra Wade, Rachel Forbes and Dave Grant from Historic England and the most able support and local knowledge of Keats Webb representing Brighton University's Cultural Informatics Research Group.

This volume of the proceedings of the 2016 EAC symposium has opted for publication in both online and printed media. Especial credit in this venture goes to Judith Winters and Erzsebet Jerem for their tremendous wealth of experience and guidance in bringing this first in a new era of EAC proceedings to publication in both online and printed formats. Other invaluable assistance in putting the conference and publication together has come from Réka Virágos, Djurra Scharff, and the previous EAC editor Paulina Florjanowicz. Finally special thanks go to Doug Rocks-McQueen, who might have presented a paper himself on how to deliver heritage information to a wider public, but who so diligently helped us make a record of all the other presentations for wider dissemination to those practitioners who could not attend EAC 2016 in person. The resulting digital videos of the presentations given in the historic Paganini Ballroom of the Ship Hotel in Brighton are available at:

This volume of the proceedings of the 17th European Archaeological Council Heritage Management Symposium 2016 has been funded by Historic England.

EAC logo   Historic England logo


Aloia, N., Binding, C., Cuy, S., Doerr, M., Fanini, B., Felicetti, A., Fihn, J., Gavrilis, D., Geser, G., Hollander, H., Meghini, C., Niccolucci, F., Nurra, F., Papatheodorou, C., Richards, J., Ronzino, P., Scopigno, R., Theodoridou, M., Tudhope, D., Vlachidis, A. and Wright, H. 2017 Enabling European Archaeological Research: The ARIADNE E-Infrastructure, Internet Archaeology 43.

Bibby, D. and Ducke, B. 2017 Free and Open Source Software Development in Archaeology. Two interrelated case studies: gvSIG CE and Survey2GIS, Internet Archaeology 43.

Berners-Lee, T., Hendler, J., and Lassila, O. 2001 "The Semantic Web", Scientific American 284(5), 34.

Corns, A. et al. 2017 3D-ICONS Ireland – fulfilling the potential of a rich 3D resource, Internet Archaeology 43.

EU Commission 2016 Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World – a vision for Europe

Hollander, H. 2017 Saving Treasures of the World Heritage at the Digital Archive DANS, Internet Archaeology 43.

Kaminski, J. 2017 Using 3D Technology to Digitise and Replicate the near Lewes Hoard, Internet Archaeology 43.

Kuna, M., Novák, D., Hasil, J. and Křivánková, D. 2017 Archaeological Map of the Czech Republic. Current state and future visions of virtual research tools in the Czech Republic, Internet Archaeology 43.

Larsson, Å. M. 2017 Digitising the Archaeological Process at the Swedish National Heritage Board: producing, managing and sharing archaeological information, Internet Archaeology 43.

McKeague, P., Corns, A. and Posluschny, A. 2017 Why the Historic Environment needs a Spatial Data Infrastructure, Internet Archaeology 43.

Meylemans, E. Cordemans, K, Cousserier, K. and Jansen, I. 2017 It's all in the Pixels: high-resolution remote-sensing data and the mapping and analysis of the archaeological and historical landscape, Internet Archaeology 43.

Musteaţă, S., Popa, A. and Voß, H. 2017 Non-Invasive Archaeology in the Republic Of Moldova — An Example of Multidisciplinary Approach and International Partnership, Internet Archaeology 43.

Oniszczuk, A. and Makowska, A. 2017 Archaeological Data in the GIS Portal of the National Heritage Board of Poland, Internet Archaeology 43.

Stibrányi, M. 2017 Switching to Digital Tools: heritage evaluation for preventive archaeology in Hungary, Internet Archaeology 43.

Schut, P.A.C., Scharff, D and de Wit, L.C. (eds) 2015 Setting the Agenda: giving new meaning to the European Archaeological Heritage, EAC Occasional Paper 10, Budapest: Europae Archaeologiae Consilium.

Thomas, R.M. 2015 Current developments in spatial analysis. Historic England internal horizon scanning report. Unpublished.

Unger, J. and Kvetina, P. 2017 An On-Site Presentation of Invisible Prehistoric Landscapes, Internet Archaeology 43.

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Waters, C.N., Barnosky, A.D. and Haff, P. 2014 'The technofossil record of humans', The Anthropocene Review 1(1), 34–43.

Further Links

Videos of presentations

Heritage Information Access Strategy

Heritage Information Access Strategy, Historic England: national versus local service provision – a presentation by Keith May